When I last logged out of Elite: Dangerous, I had just finished my lengthy pilgrimage to Empire-controlled space. The trip took well over an hour, thanks to the need to re-fuel at space stations every few jumps. I’d left on this mission (foolishly) without equipping a fuel scoop and there weren’t many larger starports in the area, which meant I couldn’t modify my ship to make it better suited for long trips between uninhabited stars. If I wasn’t careful, and didn’t stop whenever I got the chance at the smaller outposts to top off the fuel tank, I knew I could end up trapped in a dead-end system with no way out. And I didn’t want to start over, even if that would let me plan the trip better in the first place.
Elite: Dangerous is a space sim, by the way. You pilot a ship, visit the stars, shoot other people visiting those same stars, and smuggle weapons parts. It’s the sort of game that should require a keyboard and crazy flight stick, but the developers managed to port it to the Xbox One. That’s where I’m playing it because of my PC gaming aversion that I’ve long chronicled on this blog.
There was one particular space station between Federation and Empire space that stands out to me. I don’t remember the name, of course, because the places in Elite: Dangerous are all procedurally generated. Most of them don’t stick in your memory. They have generic-ass names like “Hoffman Enterprises” and “Cleve Hub.” The name of this station doesn’t matter. What matters is that it was the only populated place within jump distance as my fuel reserves dipped into the lower 1/4 of the gauge. I needed to stop somewhere–anywhere–and this place would have to do.
My salvation, this refueling point, was a refinery station nearby the only planet in the star system. It was small, asymmetrical, and poorly lit. Pipes and mechanical miscellanea stuck out every which way. Now, for some context, the large space stations in major systems are massive, bright, twirling monstrosities, thousands of times the size of your ship, with 30+ enclosed docking platforms. This out-of-the way refinery had two docking platforms, and they were on slapped on the surface of the structure. There was nothing much for sale there, only a couple rote missions on the billboard. There was no reason to even drop out of hyperspace for this podunk station unless you were like me, on a long trip and needed fuel.
When I docked at this refinery, the first thing I looked at was the system log. Each space station keeps a log of all the ships that visit it for the last 24 hours. After all, Elite: Dangerous is, secretly, an MMO. Everyone who plays Elite exists in the same universe. You can play in “solo” mode, replacing all the human players with AI, which I do because I’m not good at dogfighting. But you can’t get away from the online element of Elite: the economy, balance of power between the factions, and the little touches like the menu that lets you see how many ships have passed through the system.
There were two ships listed on this tiny refinery in the middle of nowhere: a Viper and a Sidewinder. The Viper was me. The Sidewinder was, possibly, someone even less prepared than me for a long trek into space, since that’s the starting ship. I was only one of two space travelers to stop off at this refinery on June 28, 2015.
Depending on how you look at it, Elite: Dangerous doesn’t have much to do, or it has way too much to do. The universe of the game is absolutely huge. The developers claim that they have (thanks to procedural generation) modeled the entire Milky Way galaxy. And they didn’t take the easy way out. The Milky Was is estimated to have somewhere between 100-400 billion stars and Elite: Dangerous errs on the high side with all 400 billion:
There’s more content in the game then the playerbase, as a whole, will see in their entire lifetime. Unfortunately, all this content is very same-y, boiling down to a few different activities you can do in slightly different ways. You can run shipping routes, which turns the game into Euro Truck Simulator 20xx: Trucks in Space. You can smuggle illegal goods, which is a lot like running shipping routes but you have to avoid the space cops. There are bounties and assassination missions, in which you have to shoot down a specific space jerk. Charting stars is a goal in of itself, which is probably good given the scale. All these activities increase your rank in combat, trading, and exploring. They also affect the “powerplay”, a grand metagame that encompasses the (explored) universe. Eight factions are vying for control of the (explored) universe. Every mission you do increases or decreases their control of a system. You can pledge yourself to a faction, which gives you another way to rank up by doing faction-specific missions. But those are all variations on the usual trading/exploring/fighting.
None of this should come as a surprise for anyone who has played the other Elite games, though you’d be forgiven for forgetting that they exist at all. The series has been dormant for two decades, and featured confusing Fast-and-the-Furious style sequel titling that continues to the newest installment (Elite (1984), Frontier: Elite 2 (1993), Frontier: First Encounters (1995), Elite: Dangerous (2014)). Elite has always been about the exploration of a massive universe, prioritizing that over the depth of any individual game mechanic. As an aside, it’s been really weird to see people freaking out about No Man’s Sky, asking “well…what do you do?” when the Elite games exist (and one was recently released!).
There’s no campaign, no story, just a giant fucking world to fly around and do the handful of missions the game makes available over and over again. There’s nothing wrong with those missions–the dogfighting controls well, even on an Xbox Controller, and there is something to be said about the zen nature of Euro Truck Simulator–but a deeper engagement in the world absolutely requires the player to have an active imagination.
That’s why I keep coming back to the lonely refinery, orbiting the only planet in an empty star system. In a universe of 400 billion stars, this little corner was surely generated by an algorithm. No one handcrafted this place. There was nothing special about it; it was created merely through the entropy of a system designed to create 400 billion little places like it. But stumbling upon it, in the exact moment I did, brought back memories of pulling off the highway in a tiny Missouri town to buy a gas station coffee: the eerie quiet, the unfamiliar surroundings that were the everyday lives of the people I met; the odd sensation that I was passing through a whole different reality. I wasn’t an intruder, but I was a stranger. I could just imagine the people living and working at that isolated refinery, who see two ships a day and they only stop in for a quick refueling.
Of course, those people don’t exist. They aren’t even in the game. I made them up in my head and I don’t even know why. Can I give Elite: Dangerous credit for that? Fuck, I don’t even know.
I also don’t know if I can fully recommend Elite:Dangerous unless you already know you like this sort of game. It is the poster child for the phrase “a mile wide, an inch deep”, to the point where I feel like it’s barely a game in the traditional sense. There’s barely a beginning, no middle, and certainly no end. It’s a giant world where you can do a handful of things a hundred times over. If games like Skyrim or Dragon Age: Inquisition frustrate you for lack of hand-crafted content, Elite is far worse. There’s no story, no central objective, nothing like that.
I played a ton of space sims back when I was a kid–specifically Lightspeed and Star Control 2–and they both had central storylines about saving the human race in one manner or another. The exploration was directed, there were stages of preparation, and an incredibly important reason to build up your ship to become more powerful. There’s nothing like that here.
But there are 400 billion stars to visit, real people and AI captains to fight, and trade routes to run. And there are parts of this universe that literally have never been seen, since they were crafted by algorithm and remain unexplored. Others might be discovered, but empty–a ramshackle refinery that has more in common with a Sweet Springs, Missouri gas station than a starport.
How long will those moments sustain my interest in Elite: Dangerous? I can’t say. But until No Man’s Sky comes out or I figure out how to play the X series on my television, there’s nothing else like it out there.